‘The Beautiful Story’ — Four Points for Consideration

This is a follow up post with a few scattered thoughts that were related to, but didn’t really fit in, my previous post on the redefinition of marriage. The purpose of this post is to offer a few comments on the Church of England’s Evangelical Council’s video that was released in response to the LLF material: The Beautiful Story. The ambition motivating the video was noble enough: a short, punchy, but winsome response to those in the church who would change the church’s teaching on marriage in order to allow couples of the same sex to be married in church. LLF is a little broader than that, also exploring the questions about transgenderism, but The Beautiful Story is focussed solely on the question of gay marriage.

The reaction on Twitter has been fairly predictable: most people hate it. It’s been accused of being smug and theologically illiterate. So much for being winsome — the reality is people are always going to hate you if you teach the same things that Christ and his Church have believed and taught for the last 2000 years. I think a lot of the criticism from those who would advocate for same sex marriage in the Church can be safely ignored: they have lost connection with Scripture and Tradition, they have lost touch with Christ.

Having said that, I do think there are some other flaws in the video. The biggest one was the misuse of Trinitarian doctrine and I dealt with in the previous post. Here I want to offer a few thoughts on the other ways in which I think The Beautiful Story might have missed the mark, the issues evangelicals would do well to reconsider.

1: Is Marriage Honoured or Idolised? Is Singleness Overrated or Underused?
It’s common line these days to accuse Christians of having idolised marriage. To start with, I think the word ‘idolised’ needs to be handled in the same way as the word ‘heretic’ — that is to say we ought to have a clearer and more well-defined notion of what we’re talking about when we talk about idols. Just as a heretic is anyone who believes in a doctrine you don’t, an idolater is apparently anyone who loves or values something you don’t have. So it is that the situation quickly moves from marriage being held in honour by all (Hebrews 13v4), to accusations of idolatry (i.e. actually worshipping a false god) if anyone suggests that for the vast majority of people, marriage ought to be encouraged. St Paul expressly encourages marriage in 1 Timothy 5 on the basis that marriage and family life reduces the financial strain on the Church in its provision for those who are alone. This doesn’t make it into as many talks on marriage and singleness at 1 Corinthians 7.

I will make a confession myself here: I am guilty of having publicly taught on singleness in a way that I might not if I were asked again. In an effort not to idolise marriage, and no doubt out of a desire to make my own single status a badge of piety, I’ve been guilty of overrating singleness. Many of the issues surrounding singleness are complex: it is difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all answer when there are as many reasons for people’s single status as there are single people. Timing, circumstances, vocation, health, geography, and a host of other factors are often at play, as well as the particularly current question of sexual orientation. I don’t want anything I say to be heard as a particular, or specific judgment on any individual for being unmarried, but to open the issue for self-reflection on an individual and congregational scale. With that caveat in place, I’d suggest that the broad truth is probably this: it is generally not good for churches to have large numbers of unmarried members in their congregations into their late-twenties and early thirties. Why?

Broadly speaking, because people generally aren’t staying single for good reasons. A common approach in a lot of evangelical talks on singleness is to make much of the fact that single people will have more time and freedom to serve the church and the world. This is laudable, and Paul seems to have this in mind when talks about having undivided interests in serving God in 1 Corinthians 7. But if this is the aim, how many people are really availing themselves of these opportunities? Few use their singleness like Paul, making dangerous journeys to unreached places in the hopes of planting churches there. I’d hazard a guess that far more spend their singleness in ways broadly similar to their unbelieving friends: eating brunch, watching porn, and pretending they’re not lonely. As mentioned in the previous article, the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage liturgy, following 1 Corinthians, also understands the potential spiritual dangers of singleness, and so encourages marriage in order to guard against those dangers.

None of this is to say that Paul is wrong in his assessment of the benefits of singleness and the advantage it may have in ministry – it is to ask whether we’re talking about the same thing that he is. The Church, for most of its history, has had people who remain single for the sake of living a life of undivided service to God. They are called monks and nuns. This approach has several advantages over the current informal arrangement. For a start, it gives people a higher bar: to stay single in Christ’s service means the Church has the right to a higher demand on your life than it has for a married person, who has other obligations that they must fulfil. Secondly, it offers far more support and structure for single people: it ensures real community, underwritten with vows. Thirdly, and following from this, it gives predictability for the long haul. A source of anxiety for many single people is the fact that their lives are generally less stable than those of their married counterparts. They are likely to change living arrangements, move location, change jobs, etc. more frequently, and must make those plans with something as fundamentally life-changing as marriage being a possibility at the same time. Few are well-suited to living this way for many years, or even decades. I’m not suggesting we bring back monasticism, just pointing out that historically people have considered the vocation to singleness (and it was considered a vocation — a calling) in a very different way than we do.

Yet The Beautiful Story doesn’t have much by way of real solutions here. The contributors point out the failures of the sexual revolution as it results in promiscuity and loneliness, but still insist that Christians have idolised marriage. I am not convinced that their analysis will really offer much by way of solutions in terms of making sure that marriage is honoured, which in turn will be good for the godliness of the church, its effectiveness in mission, and its survival to the next generation. Aaron Renn over The Masculinist has written some stuff that is, in my view, far more insightful and constructive, and if you’re familiar with his work you’ll know I’m leaning pretty heavily on him here. I recommend checking out some of his stuff and thoughtfully considering it, as you’ll get views not commonly heard elsewhere in the Christian blogosphere. Caveat lector, however, he does not pull any punches.

2: Gender & Ministry
In the hopes of creating a pan-evangelical alliance against same-sex marriage, complementarians and egalitarians are joining forces. This, understandably, needs some explaining. Why is it OK to go against the Bible (as some may see it — I’m making no comment here) on women being bishops, but not on same-sex marriage? Aren’t they both part of the same struggle for progress? The answer given, of course, is that the Bible is clearer on one than the other, so there is a range of acceptable views on women in ministry, but not on same-sex relationships. This is basically true. It is less clear what ‘teaching’ and ‘authority’ and ‘prophesying’, etc., etc., are referring to, and so cases can be made for women taking up certain roles as they exist in modern church structures without violating what the Apostles taught and practiced.

The problem is that the rethinking of women in ministry was done with people asking the wrong questions, which are only now being exposed with the rise of transgender ideology. This is because the debate then took place in very different intellectual and cultural climate to the debate that is going on now. The debate around women being ordained to the priesthood, then episcopacy, took place in the context of, and in dialogue with, what might broadly be termed second-wave feminism. The terms of the debate had been set, for the most part, by economics, and the (correct) insistence that a woman could do the same work that a man could do (true at least, in the sorts of male-dominated jobs that women actually wanted), and that she ought to be equally remunerated for doing so. A man gets paid ABC as a CEO doing XYZ, why shouldn’t a women be able to do the same? This was all just and right and fair.

The problem was this: the priesthood and episcopacy was reduced to similarly functional terms, then when women were found to be capable of performing those same functions, they were ordained. This was essentially a move away from the Church being a family (even if a family business), towards the Church being a company. As Andrew Wilson has brilliantly pointed out here, the shift in mindset of what the church is leads to this confusion in how it should be led, and by whom. If the church is a company, saying women can’t be elders/priests/pastors/bishops is like saying women can’t be CEOs, but if the Church is a family, then it is saying that women cannot be fathers.

The context of the current LLF conversations is totally different. The transgender movement has split feminism into warring factions: the allies of the trans movement on the one hand, and the dreaded TERFs on the other. Crudely put, the younger feminists tend to fall into the first camp, and the older feminists into the second. These two camps may both claim the label of feminist, but they cannot be reconciled because they have fundamentally different ideas of what being a woman actually means. For the TERFs, being a woman is a biologically reality, and this biological reality leads to the social experience of being a woman. For the trans allies, those who are biologically male may also be women. Gender identity is not determined by biological sex.

This difference in cultural and intellectual climate radically changes what we are talking about when we talk about gender, whether or not one holds to a traditional view of gender as being determined by biological sex. In the debates concerning women in ministry in the 1990s, the debate was, broadly speaking, about whether women could hold the same office, with its functions and authority, as men. The debate not about whether a man could be a woman.

So what should we do with the landscape now? The change of tune of some complementarians in the C of E, and in that video, hints that there was never much of a reason for opposing the ordination of women besides a fairly shallow biblicism. The cultural moment in which we find ourselves gives all evangelicals an opportunity to reconsider why the Scriptures restrict the priesthood and episcopacy to men (I won’t rehearse the arguments to explain why I think they do). Some conservatives may see this as the opportunity to admit that women’s ordination is a lost cause and move on to the next issue — I see it as an opportunity to reconsider with hindsight the impact of the decisions of the 1990s, and to reform both our views of what gender is and what the priesthood and episcopacy is.

3: Provincial Evangelicals
One of the solutions proposed within the video is that a separate provincial arrangement could be made for those who could not accept same-sex marriage. This would be a fairly complex operation, as the new province, under its new archbishop, would not be geographically determined in the same way that the provinces of Canterbury and York are.

Frankly, this suggestion strikes me as a somewhat spineless option. If one couldn’t be part of a province that practices same-sex marriage, then why be part of that Church at all? This option seems to attempt to preserve some sort of fellowship with Canterbury and York, while simultaneously breaking fellowship with the two archbishops, and rejecting their jurisdiction in their historic geographic sees. There would be no sense in which the two churches were united or meaningfully part of the same denomination. Conservatives would be better off making a clean break, rather than limping on in a denomination that they would have given up on in all but name. What would they be staying in for? A few old buildings and some franchising rights? If the C of E is judged to be so dead as to need a third province for those who hold to the apostolic word, then why not let it die and put your faith in the God that resurrects the dead?

A better model and precedent to consider would be the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), where conservatives of varying stripes broke fellowship with The Episcopal Church (TEC) over its liberalising in the areas of sexuality. The ACNA was able to form a Church with its own leadership and with total independence of TEC. Far from then being shut out into obscurity, many in the the Anglican world (though not the C of E) recognise the ACNA and are in full communion with it. The ACNA’s archbishop is even the chairman of the primates council of GAFCON. That is to say, the ACNA is in fellowship with all the churches that conservatives who may seek a third province would want to be.

There is a question of how this happens though. The obvious route would seem to be through the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE), since their bishop was GAFCON’s missionary bishop to the UK. I personally think more attention ought to go to the Free Church of England (FCE) rather that AMiE, if AMiE comes to be a fully-fledged denomination.* There’s already a perfectly good denomination with its own bishops doing precisely what AMiE wants to, with the advantage of 150 years of experience. This, of course, would have to be done carefully, since there would be a fairly broad spectrum of people leaving: the New Wine school of more charismatic, more egalitarian Anglicans, the Renew school of reformed, complementarian Anglicans, and perhaps even the odd Anglo-Catholic knocking about. It would be extraordinarily difficult to fit these into one denomination. The New Wine crew may want the FCE to acknowledge the validity of orders for female clergy, the Renew crowd might not get on with the robes and liturgy, and the Anglo-Catholics would struggle because the whole point of the FCE being formed in the first place was to resist the influence of the Oxford Movement. It’d be a real challenge of culture as well: if all those who would opposed same-sex marriage were to join the FCE, it would be dominated by newcomers, and it would be a real challenge to manage that shift in dynamic. But possibility is itself exciting — who knows what the Spirit might do if these people all got together in humility to unite for the sake of Christ?

The business of offering solutions is far, far above my experience and influence, but I might offer some modest hopes. My hope is that all conservative Anglicans can find unity around the things that they claim to be the basis of unity: the Scriptures, and the Prayer Book. That is to say, I hope that all parties will be open to reforming themselves, and making compromises for the sake of unity. My fear is that, if anyone leaves at all, the desire for power and influence, combined with the fact that there isn’t that much cross-pollination between evangelical groups at the moment, will lead all the groups to splinter to form their own movements. We would all be impoverished if that happened.

4: Take a Shot Every Time Someone Says ‘We’re Telling a Better Story’
Of course, don’t actually do the above, it might be bad for your health. I get that ‘story’ is the fashionable word, but it needs a bit of a rest: it’s doing too much work. We don’t need to ditch it altogether (it’s essential for understanding doctrine and ethics), but we need to appreciate that in Scripture we’re not just living in one storyline. The contributors all refer to the romance of Scripture, but that is not the only plot line in the Bible. It’s also a book about battles, about God vanquishing his enemies and the rightful King inheriting the throne. It’s also a coming-of-age story, in which a wayward humanity comes to maturity through the Spirit, and takes up their inheritance of ruling the world well.

Here’s why this matters: the constant appeal is to a) understand the Bible’s storyline as a romance, then b) understand that we are the bride of Christ, and then c) say that marriage is only for a man and a woman, because we are enacting the marriage of Christ as his Church. All well and good, but this narrative divests marriage of any significance or purpose in itself. Sure, I’ll happily say that imaging Christ and the Church may be the highest purpose of marriage, but ignoring the earthly purposes of marriage seems to leave us with an arrangement that is all divinity and no humanity. By situating marriage in another storyline as well, we can have a more fully orbed understanding. We could tell the story like this as well: the Bible’s storyline is a story of adventure, inheritance, and coming-of-age. Humanity was created as just two, male and female, set in a world in its infancy, and given the task to fill it and rule it. Things went awry, and humanity disobeyed its Lord and neglected its task of ruling the world on his behalf, and allowed the devil in to corrupt the works of God. The Gospel is the story of God placing the world under the rule of a humanity made new through the second Adam, who in His appearing destroys the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), and crushes Satan beneath the feet of His Church (Rom. 16:20). This new humanity inherits the earth, and rules it in righteousness. In this telling, marriage plays a significant role: it is the means by which the earth is populated (and so, with Christian offspring, the new world is populated), and it is a partnership and vehicle in which man and woman work together in the task of ruling the world for its flourishing.

This is not an either-or scenario, the point is that it is both-and. Both held together help to ensure that one Biblical perspective doesn’t swallow the other. And that’s a selling point: we don’t have one beautiful story, we’ve got several. If you only focus on marriage as it fits into the Christ-Church paradigm, then marriage is, as Ed Shaw says in the video, merely the trailer for that eternal state. If we understand that marriage is also for the flourishing of this world, and that the initial creation mandate had a purpose behind it, then we understand that it is a trailer, but not only a trailer, as though it doesn’t matter that much in this life, or has no purpose for this world. If marriage is only a trailer, then one has to ask the question as to why God went to the trouble of inventing in it the first place. Why not just show us the film? The pastoral intention behind this is admirable — I have even preached this myself (under the title ‘How adopting a post-apocalyptic mindset could improve your love life’) — as the motivation is to remind married people that their marriage is temporary, not ultimate, and to remind single people that they will be ultimately and eternally married. Let me be clear: this is all true, and ought to be taught, but not to the exclusion of God’s more earthly purposes for marriage.

The gospel is a story, but the whole phrase of ‘telling a better story’ can be overused for another reason. That reason is that it can incline people to think too much in conceptual categories of metanarrative. Too little metanarrative is a bad thing, leaving one unable to orient their day to day experiences with each other, let alone with the grand schema of God’s actions in creation and salvation, and leaves people unable to make meaningful decisions or plans (cf. MacIntyre’s famous line in After Virtue: “Man is … essentially a story-telling animal. That means I can only answer the question ‘what am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question of ‘what story or stories do I find myself a part of?”). At the same time, too much metanarrative leads one into pure ideology, in which concrete events don’t matter except as they can be spun into a good yarn. Events and people become mere symbols and representations of grander stories and struggles — my concrete existence, my own personal foibles and eccentricities, the discrete and unrepeatable events of my life, these are not given more significance by the narrative of Christ, they are swallowed up.

The struggle of our theology is to hold the two together: to say that our lives are not our own, but have been grafted into the Messiah, and yet to say that our identity is ‘in Christ’ in a way that doesn’t obliterate our individuality into some great bland Christ-monolith, like the Buddhist who aspires to realising the non-self in nirvana. This isn’t where The Beautiful Story goes, but an overemphasis on metanarrative has negative consequences when it diverts all attention from the particularities in which we find ourselves now. We must keep telling the gospel narrative, but we ought to rediscover and employ other categories: we are obeying better commands, receiving better wisdom, etc.

Maybe I’m being harsh
I recognise that some will think all this too harsh. Of course, the video is basically good and basically doing the right thing: it is contending for obedience to Scripture. It is attempting to articulate the faith in a way that is positive and winsome, and it unashamedly asserts that the gospel is good and life-giving news, and that in Christ’s service is perfect freedom. For those reasons, I thank God for the video and those who made it. At the same time, there are some shortcomings in the video, and shortcomings in the way that evangelicals have been talking about marriage, gender, and sexuality for years. It would be remiss of evangelicals to miss this opportunity to revaluate our teaching, rather than assume that all must be well in our camp.

* Update, May 2021: This comment aged like milk, as the FCE bishops are now embroiled in scandal and the denomination has now lost not just clergy or churches, but even an entire diocese. That’s not to say that I’ll now become a cheerleader for AMiE (it still seems a thin and untraditional Anglicanism to me, that is uncomfortable with historical Anglican diversity, but desires historical Anglican social capital), but the other boat has sprung a lot of leaks. Perhaps the Anglican road from here is schism all the way down.

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